The Boxing Esq. Podcast, Ep. 34: David Berlin
The Ring is proud to present “The Boxing Esq. Podcast with Kurt Emhoff”. Emhoff, an attorney based in New York City, is a top boxing manager who has represented over 10 world champions in his 20-plus years in the sport.
His guest on this podcast is the former Executive Director of the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC), David Berlin. They spoke about David’s background and interest in the sport, including a brief amateur boxing career. They also talked about his relationship with Teddy Atlas, his representation of Salita Promotions and his new management company Four Corners.
Additionally, they discussed his time at the NYSAC and his implementation of policies regarding drug testing, health care for boxers, promoters’ obligations for bout medical insurance, selection of officials and instant replay.
Below are a few excerpts from the interview:
On Salita Promotions fighter Otto Wallin’s performance against Tyson Fury:
“Otto had a great performance a couple of weeks ago. He went into the fight as an unknown heavyweight from Sweden and emerged showing what he is, showing his real character. It’s something that his team knew ahead of time – the kind of character he has. And he showed it in the ring. He shows it outside the ring all of the time. But he proved himself on the big stage that he belongs in the mix of top heavyweights today. So it was, you know, despite it being a loss on his record, it was really his coming out party, where he shows what he is and showed where he belongs. He clearly belonged in the ring with Tyson Fury that night.
There’s a good chance the fight would’ve been stopped somewhere else. But you know, I honestly hate, although I think that’s a reality, I don’t like talking in those terms because I don’t want to take credit away from Tyson Fury who himself showed his character in that ring and showed his toughness to be able to battle through something like that. So, you know, all credit to Tyson Fury for his performance as well.”
On his boxing management company Four Corners Advisory Group:
“Well, you know, we’re actually just getting started as a business. It’s a good group of people, all of whom I have a friendship with. All of whom I believe in, in terms of their integrity, in terms of their knowledge of the sport, their background in the sport. So it really is a good group. And as you mentioned (the members are), Zach Levin, Keith Sullivan who’s worked with me at the commission, he was actually there for longer than I was. He was a deputy commissioner for about five years and represents fighters. And like me, he and Nicole as well, we all do pro bono work as counsel for Teddy’s foundation, the Dr. Theodore Atlas Foundation. So all good people and all involved in the sport. But we are starting out as a company we’re called the Four Corners Advisory Group. There are four of us, of course.
Right now we manage Peter Dobson. He’s an 11-0 welterweight who just had a big win out in Las Vegas. He beat 16-0 Emmanuel Medina, stopped him in the fifth round. So a good victory for him, a step up fight for him. So we’re hoping for good things for him and we are in discussions with others about possible fighters. But right now, it’s just Peter Dobson as far as the Four Corners Advisory Group goes.”
On the state of drug testing in the sport with VADA/USADA vis-a-vis state commissions:
“Right now USADA seems to be out of the boxing business. There were a couple of exposes essentially written by Thomas Hauser who really cast out on the kind of testing and the kind of disclosures really that USADA was making with respect to their work in boxing. So, as far as I know, nobody is using USADA at the moment for testing in boxing because the go-to choice and the good choice is Margaret Goodman’s organization, VADA. So, certainly they’ve been involved in testing in New York and Nevada, as well. In fact, they did testing for the Tyson Fury-Otto Wallin fight recently out there. They’re certainly a respected organization. And, as you know, there have been many more positive findings from VADA than there ever were USADA where it was a rare situation.
But the commissions seem to be accepting the results that VADA gives them. I mean this is information where right upfront, fighters sign an agreement with the understanding that this information is going to be shared, not just with their own teams, but with the other team, with the commission. And commissions have acted based on the VADA results. Obviously we had a situation with Jarrell Miller recently where the New York Commission denied his license based on those positive findings from VADA. And I guess, secondarily, also based on the fact that Jarrell Miller had put something down in his application which was contrary obviously to the findings that VADA made. So the commissions are respecting and accepting the results from VADA, as is appropriate.
(What Nevada is doing in registering VADA and USADA and adopting their results) makes perfect sense. I mean, clearly even commissions with the will to do something right in terms of PEDs and PED testing don’t have the budget to do it. So the testing that’s done now, urine tests before and after the fight for title fights in New York, really doesn’t reveal a whole lot. Particularly if you’re testing somebody who’s been guided properly, who knows how to use these performance enhancing drugs in a way where they won’t be found. So the tests in place in the commission are virtually worthless. And the only kind of testing that works would be the unannounced testing that VADA conducts and that USADA also conducts.
It certainly makes sense what Nevada has done if they’ve codified this. Again, there’s no budget for it on the commission level and bigger promotions are able to afford this kind of testing, and order it, at least for their most important fights. So I think that’s a good thing. And Bob Bennett has done, you know, he’s another guy who’s proactive, who’s trying to do right for the fighters and for the sport. He cares about what he’s doing. And he is trying to codify certain things like this, as you mentioned also the instant replay rules that they put in place a few months ago, I understand. So he’s put it down and he’s put pen to paper. And you know, this is exactly the way a commission should operate, where whatever you’re going to do is written down so that the public knows. So that it’s clear. So that there aren’t issues later about whether you’re making up rules as they go along or whether you really have something in place that’s consistent that the boxing public can see and that the boxers know about. So I give credit to Bob Bennett for leading that commission and putting pen to paper on these things.”
On his part in getting fighters, trainers and their families signed up for healthcare insurance in NY:
“This was an initiative I started shortly after joining the Commission, something like that, which is very important. I was obviously aware of the problem that you have fighters and the dangerous profession and not only dangerous when they’re fighting before a crowd, but dangerous also when they’re in their boxing gym, sparring, getting ready for a fight. Each of the States has promoters purchase medical insurance that will cover any injuries to a fighter on the night of a fight. Though there are in different States, different limits as to what kind of coverage a promoter needs to purchase. You know, which ranges from $10,000 to $100,000 in terms of medical insurance. But what wasn’t in place was a comprehensive policy for fighters to be protected. So what I did, we teamed up with an organization called NADAC, which is a not-for-profit. It does work through the Department of Health in New York. And we started educating fighters and their teams, other people in gym, trainers as well, in how to get health insurance, comprehensive health insurance and signing them up. So we held a number of open houses both at the Commission and in the boxing gym throughout New York City and upstate as well, in order to enroll fighters and their teams and their families.
During that push, more than a hundred fighters, trainers and their families as well, were signed up. People who had no health insurance before and now they had health insurance. So if they got that injury in the gym, they’d have somewhere to go for treatment without having to pay out of pocket or without having to forego treatments, which would be the choice of many who don’t have the funds to pay for medical care. Yeah, it was great initiative. And, again, more than a hundred fighters have health insurance because those open houses.”
On the huge hike in promoters’ medical insurance in NY in 2016 when he was at the NYSAC:
“To my mind, the million-dollar insurance requirement does not make sense. It hurts the sport of boxing and shouldn’t be in place. And I wish there was the political will to get rid of that requirement. When I was at the Commission when I started, the requirements for New York and this was a codified obviously, was that promoters needed to purchase medical insurance for fighters or in a fight of $10,000. And there were death benefits of $100,000 at that time. So it was $10,000 for medical, $100,000 in case of death. What I advocated throughout and what eventually came into law shortly after my departure actually – but as a result of my efforts, was that New York increased its medical insurance to $50,000 and it’s basically a 50/50 policy now, $50,000 in medical insurance, $50,000 in death benefits.
I felt it was important, first of all, to put us in line with the other important commissions in the United States – Nevada, California. They both have that 50/50 requirement. And also because the $10,000 in medical coverage that was in place in New York was really something that was not keeping up with the times. Obviously, with healthcare bills today, hospital bills today, $10,000 may not be enough if a fighter gets a broken jaw in the ring. So I felt it was important to increase those limits. Again, it was due to my advocate that this was put into the new law which came into effect shortly after my departure from the Commission. So now there is a 50/50 limit in place in New York, which is to my mind, a very positive thing and the way it should be. Of course, New York is an important commission and an important state for boxing and it should be in line with the other important boxing States.
What I did not ask for and really resisted was this requirement that was put in place – which was the requirement that promoters purchase $1 million in coverage. And the language is very specific “in the event of life-threatening brain injuries.” So that’s essentially how the language in the statute reads. I learned about this about a year before it actually went into place. I guess September 1st, 2016 is when the new laws in New York went into place, which legalized mixed martial arts in New York. The fact that that law was being created really provided an opportunity because since a new law was being created, I was able to advocate for certain changes within that law. So that’s in addition to MMA being legalized, other advances, improvements for boxing could also be placed in the new language of the law.
That is where I asked for the $50,000 in medical insurance to be put in place. A couple of other issues as well, which I was able to advocate and get into this new law, which I think I helped it to the sport. But what came back was this language, something I hadn’t heard about. It talks about this million-dollar insurance requirement for life-threatening brain injuries. The moment I learned about it, I realized this was wrong. I put in a call to Lawrence Cole, one of the regular companies that insures boxers and provides a kind of medical insurance that promoters need to take out for fights. I asked him what is this going to mean? And you know, I had a sense even before making that call because I had done my research when I was checking on the cost of the $50,000 medical insurance and what that would mean for promoters as opposed to the then-current policy of $10,000 medical insurance for promoters. So I had some understanding of how much costs would increase. Laurence Cole’s reaction was what mine was, was that this is going to potentially put boxing out of business in New York. Certainly among the small promoters. And he did his research and tried to come back to me with some numbers even though this was something novel in the sport, but the numbers were significantly higher than anything promoters were paying at the time. And I realized immediately this cannot work. It’s going to put small promoters out of business. All of those local shows where fighters can show their skills and be built up in Syracuse and Rochester and Buffalo and in New York too.
It’s going to put them out of business and it’s even going to create problems for the larger promoters. Sure enough, and just to digress for a moment, when this law came into effect, September 1st, 2016, for several months after that, there was not a single boxing show in New York. So I believe certainly through the rest of 2016 I believe there was no boxing in New York from the moment this law was instituted. So it clearly had an effect and the small shows still aren’t going on for local promoters that I worked with in Syracuse and Rochester, they’re not doing shows anymore. And that’s on account of the cost of this million dollars in insurance.
My sense of it is that it was a political decision. Probably political decisions, in reaction to the Magomed (Abdusalamov) case. But one which was not thought through and one where the politicians didn’t do their homework. So it certainly sounds good if you don’t know the issue. It sounds good. Oh great, $1 million in insurance for life-threatening brain injuries, that’s really gonna help these guys out. But what sounds good on the surface is really something that has done a disservice to the sport of boxing in New York and to the fighters who want to pry their trade in their home state, in their home communities.
What it did is it put in place the requirements, which, you know, if we’re honest about this, $1 million in insurance would not help Magomed. This man, for his care, needs multiples of that. And he received that in the settlements (of his civil case against New York State and other parties) which is a good thing for him and for his family. But the million dollars in insurance does not do much for a fighter who’s in that condition. But what it did on the other end is it put small promoters out of business and it made it more difficult for larger promoters to promote in New York. It’s a piece of insurance that promoters have now been paying for nearly three years. It has not been used yet. There hasn’t been the need for it, which is, of course, a good thing. But you’re talking about an extra expense which puts a dampener on the boxing business in New York and gets rid of club shows where smaller fighters in their communities are now unable to fight in New York. So it’s done little good with the political decision. Again, no one did their homework. No one got on the phone like I did the day I learned about it to speak to Lawrence Cole. They could’ve gotten on the phone for half an hour and gotten to the bottom of this and understood what effect this would have on the boxing business. But no one bothered. They put in place something that sounded good and refused to revisit it.”
On his philosophy of evaluating and selecting judges and officials when he was at the NYSAC:
“Listen, as you say it very difficult. Obviously, what judges do is subjective to a degree. Though there certainly are right and wrong answers in most cases with most rounds with what most referees are doing. But judgment does come into it and obviously judgments can differ.
In terms of judging the judges and referees, I would say that’s just as difficult. But something that I always tried to keep track of. I would always take notes during fights, after fights. Often my attention would be on referees and what they’re doing in the ring, judges’ scorecards as they’re coming in. I would, and again, this is part of the learning process and the growing process, I would speak with or meet with referees and judges, in places where I saw a need for that. So I’d get on the phone and I’d speak to a referee about his or her performance.
You know, many of them, I had very good relationships. They would call me or they would stop by so that we could discuss the last fight they did. I think these sessions are helpful. Not as a means to criticize, but as a means to allow officials to grow. You can look at tape, you can learn some things you did and you can grow better. I think that happened with many of the referees who were there. So there was an attention to that.
The Pod Index (a database showing judges’ degrees of agreement with each other) is something I looked at. I think it’s a worthy tool. Obviously, it’s not the final answer. And, the creators of it, Podgorski, you know, said that himself. This isn’t the final answer. But that’s another tool that commissions can use.
And so, yes, as a tool, I think it’s something that’s useful. I don’t think they’ll ever be a perfect system in place for being able to grade referees and judges in a strictly objective way. A lot of it does come down to judgment. But whatever data we can gather, including what the Pod Index gathers is useful in making those decisions.
In terms of giving the camp a say (in picking the officials), that is something that I put in place while I was there. It was put out there as a Commission rule that’s not in the statute certainly or the rules. But it was simply a Commission policy. One that we abided by. I think they may have changed some of the language in that policy after the time that I left, but essentially it gave the camps notice. I think it was about three weeks notice, of a list of possible referees, possible judges.
So without giving them the names of who was going to be officiating and it was a number of names. And with the understanding that it’s from that list that we would select the officials. We would ask the camps, do you have any objections? If you do, let us know who, let us know why and give us your reasons. If you have any documentation, if you just want to explain your reasons, go ahead. I allowed them to do it either in writing or simply in a phone call because, obviously, camps might be wary about criticizing particular officials in writing and I understood that.
So camps would on occasion have an objection. I would, of course, make up a determination whether it was legitimate or not legitimate and make the appropriate selection of officials.
But the entire list were officials who I felt were qualified and competent to judge that particular fight. Sometimes officials were struck off that list based on the objections of a particular camp. It seemed to me a fair way to approach this. We’re going to put qualified officials in place, but if there’s a reason to object and listen, as I said before, it’s a small community. Sometimes people know each other. Sometimes it’s improper to have a particular judge, judging a particular fighter if he knows the camp, if he knows the trainer. So that was the reason for that policy. Give the boxers and their camps a say.”